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Three members of the Rutgers University–Newark community have won the prestigious 2016 American Book Award. Professor John Keene and Assistant Professor Lyra Monteiro, along with alumnus Nick Turse, received news of the prize this week.
Keene is being honored for his book Counternarratives (New Directions), Monteiro for her essay “Race-Conscious Casting and the Erasure of the Black Past in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton” (The Public Historian), and Turse for his book Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa (Haymarket Books).
Presented by the Before Columbus Foundation (BCF) since 1980, the American Book Awards recognize outstanding literary achievement from the entire spectrum of America’s diverse literary community. Winners are nominated and selected by a panel of writers, editors and publishers who also represent the diversity of American literary culture. Past winners include Toni Morrison, Allen Ginsberg, Audrey Lorde, David Halberstam, Chang-rae Lee, Edwidge Danticat, Amiri Baraka, and RU-N’s Rigoberto Gonzáles.
“This is a great honor,” says Keene, who teaches in RU-N’s English department and MFA Creative Writing Program, and is Chair of the African American and African Studies department. “It was particularly thrilling to learn that a fellow Rutgers-Newark faculty member, and an alumnus, had also been honored.”
Keene’s Counternarratives is a groundbreaking work containing 13 novellas and short stories that center mainly on the African diaspora following the introduction of the slave trade to the Americas and on into modernity. The stories sweep across time and space, exhibiting Keene’s acute sense of history (and literature and the arts), while burrowing deep into counterfactual storytelling—as the title suggests—to reveal the imaginative possibilities inherent in fiction.
Counternarratives has received rave reviews from media outlets such as Harper’s magazine, The Nation, the Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, Publishers Weekly, The Paris Review and Book Forum.
Monteiro, who teaches American history at RU-N, won the Walter & Lillian Lowenfels Criticism Award, given out by BSF as part of its American Book Awards, for her essay, which appeared in the February 2016 issue of the journal The Public Historian.
In her piece, Monteiro argues that the play engages in “Founders Chic,” a representational strategy that makes the founders look relatable and cool, while downplaying their involvement in slavery. She also critiques the play for omitting the role of black people in the American Revolution, and for the way “race-conscious” casting glosses over this erasure of black people from the show’s narrative.
For Turse, an investigative journalist, historian and author who received an M.A. from RU-N’s History department in 1999, this is his second American Book Award. His first came in 2014 for his New York Times bestseller, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam.
Tomorrow’s Battlefield, which won this year’s award, exposes the Pentagon’s new shadow wars in Africa and the proliferation of the U.S. military’s secret missions on the continent, which Turse claims is helping to destabilize whole countries and preparing the ground for future blowback.
BCF Board Chairperson Justin Desmangles said this about the three RU-N-affiliated winners this year:
“We are proud to honor the work of John Keene, whom we regard as among the most innovative and exciting writers in America today. The richness and fertility of his imagination coupled with the elegance of his prose produce a unique literary experience. In addition, we consider Lyra Montiero's critical perspectives to be both vital and courageous. Her rigorous, inventive, and powerfully deciphering analysis of “Hamilton,” the musical, was a much-needed antidote to the toxic commercial hyperbole. Finally, Nick Turse's efforts to expose secret U.S. military operations in Africa should be regarded as heroic. At BCF, we consider Turse to be in the tradition of the greatest journalists, penetrating the subterfuge and excavating information and perspectives otherwise missing or ignored.”